Celebrated on June 19, Juneteenth is the oldest-known celebration recognizing the end of slavery in the United States. It is also sometimes called “Freedom Day,” “Juneteenth Independence Day,” or “Emancipation Day.”
“Now I’ve been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave.” –Harriet Tubman (1820–1913), American abolitionist and political activist
“Every year, we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one define the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That’s why we need this holiday.” –Texas Rep. Albert Ely Edwards (1937–2020), sponsor of Texas House Bill 1016 (1979), which made Emancipation Day (“Juneteenth”) a statewide paid holiday
What Is Juneteenth?
On January 1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. It granted freedom to “all persons held as slaves” in 10 Confederate-controlled states. However, for the most part, the order was not enforced until Union soldiers were able to advance into these areas after the end of the war, the beginning of which came in April 1865 with the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee after the Battle of Appomattox Court House in Virginia.
On June 19, 1865, U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger delivered to the people of Galveston, Texas, General Order No. 3, which read, in part:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
This day soon became known as “Juneteenth,” a verbal shorthand for June 19.
Slavery in the United States would be formally abolished with the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.
Recognition of Juneteenth
In 1980, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday (calling it “Emancipation Day”). Since then, at least 48 states and the District of Columbia have acknowledged Juneteenth as a holiday or observance.
Amid the worldwide civil right protests that took place during 2020, many companies began to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday for employees.
In June of 2021, the city of Galveston, in partnership with the Juneteenth Legacy Project, will unveil “Absolute Equality,” a 5,000-square-foot public art mural that overlooks the spot where U.S. Maj. Gen. Granger read General Order No. 3.
On June 17, 2021, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Act, which establishes June 19th as a federal holiday.
Early celebrations of Juneteenth included gatherings of former slaves and their descendants in Galveston and throughout Texas. As African-Americans were often barred from using public facilities, some groups and individuals pooled their money to purchase land in order to hold these events. One of the most significant and lasting was 10 acres acquired by a group of African-American ministers and businessmen in Houston. This land would become Emancipation Park, which today is the oldest park in Houston, Texas.
While Juneteenth celebrations declined during the early 1900s, including during the Great Depression, there was a resurgence of interest during and following the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s/1960s.
Today, several major cities—especially those in states throughout the South—hold public Juneteenth events that include parades and festivals.
Local celebrations of Juneteenth often center on family and traditional foods, such as barbecue, tea cakes, black-eyed peas, and strawberry soda. Rodeos, street fairs, family reunions, picnics, historical reenactments, and art exhibits play a role in many of these festivities, as do public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and works by prominent African-American authors and scholars.